Last month I made a pilgrimage to St. Mary’s Church, the university church at Oxford, when I was visiting that ancient city of dreaming spires. Ridley, Latimer, and Cranmer were tried and convicted there for Protestant heresy. But I did not have those men in mind. It was from the pulpit of St. Mary’s that John Henry Newman preached for more than a dozen years in the early nineteenth century. Some of those sermons are published as his University Sermons, and they are among the best reflections on faith and reason available in the English language. I often recommend them to friends who are troubled by questions about the rationality of belief.
Newman is one of my heroes. I admire his command of the English language. His long, cloistral silver-veined sentences (James Joyce’s characterization), which move so effortlessly across the page, are wonderful constructions that rival Gibbon’s in their perfect rhetorical balance. But Newman shines all the more in short, declarative pronouncements that gather up his complex arguments into arresting formulations. On the limits of formal reason: “It is as absurd to argue men, as to torture them, into believing.” On the adventure of dogmatic faith: “Many a man will live and die upon a dogma: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion.”
When it comes to theology, there’s no doubt that Karl Barth influenced me profoundly, awakening me from my Tillichean slumbers with his unashamed, unqualified assertion that Jesus Christ is the incarnate Son of God and, just so, the Alpha and Omega of all truth. Newman, too, endorses the “dogmatic principle,” and he helped me see that “dogmatism” is a virtue not limited to theology. The mind’s native powers can gather evidence and form observations to discuss and debate. But in the main, our thoughts are animated by beliefs given, not discovered or deduced. The free-ranging intellect is a Rousseauvian myth, for the well-stocked mind is the instructed mind, and instruction requires submission to authority. Far from a stultifying medievalism, submission to authority gives the intellectual life vitality and ambition.
The dogmatic principle does not result in credulity. On the contrary, Newman had the finest critical mind of his generation, so that he remains unsurpassed in his account of the limits of critical reason. He observes that there is a crucial difference between arguments and reasons. When it comes to Christian faith, the apologist gravitates toward arguments that can be put succinctly. But more often than not, the apologist’s own faith has quite different sources, ones that are nebulous and personal, and thus difficult to cast in logical form.
As Newman notes in many places, formal or explicit reason operates under severe limitations. It tends to be critical, not creative. Usually, explicit reason “will pull down, and will not be able to build up.” Fact-based arguments and rigorous syllogisms illuminate our minds, but only along a limited range. Their domain is one of small truths. By contrast, truths that are large and consequential are impressed upon us by means at once indirect and more forceful. In higher realms, we navigate by what Newman calls implicit reason. This mode of reason is prejudicial, in the sense of operating within a person’s knowledge of the larger complexion of truth—its characteristic color and shading, or, to change metaphors, its savor and taste.
This is incontrovertibly true. The belief that man is nothing but a biological machine without a soul does not arise from rigorous science, for we know people with impeccable scientific credentials who think otherwise. Nor does it arise from metaphysical arguments in favor of materialism. Some are convinced by such arguments; others are not, and the difference cannot be explained by intelligence or knowledge of philosophy. A person’s overall outlook is decisive.
Newman does not draw from his insight into the prejudicial nature of rational judgment—his insight into our dependence upon “antecedent conditions”—a skeptical conclusion. Instead, he recognizes that the most important questions in life, including questions of religious faith, require taking responsibility for our prejudices, which means ensuring that they are properly developed. “Right Faith is the faith of a right mind.” And well-formed knowledge is the knowledge of a well-formed mind.
One of our great temptations in the modern era has been to evade responsibility for the proper formation of our prejudices. We seek fact-based truths, a mode of knowing that we imagine is secure against our vices. Those truths, we think, may be passed down by vain and indolent teachers, or fabricated by the greedy scientist whose main goals are prizes and patents. As Newman put it, we hope that knowledge does not require preparation of our hearts. Thus the quintessential modern presupposition: “Truth is to be approached without homage.”
But this is not possible, at least not in the matters of consequence that bear upon how we should live. As Newman observes, should the newspapers report an earthquake in Syria, the man in the street easily assents, because it does not affect anything in his own life. But should a friend tell that same man that it is wrong to use contraception, the reaction is very different, for the consequences can be immediate. The truth claim asks for personal assent, and thus the determination whether or not to give assent implicates reason in a vast array of considerations, few of which admit of formal argument. In this personal engagement with truth, a man’s moral character is as decisive as his native intelligence.
From Newman I have learned that intellectual authority is a species of moral authority. Many of us know learned scholars whose conclusions we do not trust. We know clever persons who are capable of subtle arguments that win debates but do not convince. These persons lack the virtue of judgment. By contrast, if we are lucky, we know people who seem capable of synthesizing ideas. They move from scholarly expertise to sound conclusions; they discern the difference between good and tendentious research. Such people are more than well-read; they are well-formed. They take responsibility for what they know—which is a moral achievement, not an intellectual one.
I sat in a pew in St. Mary’s for ten or twenty minutes that day in Oxford. I had come to pray. But for the most part I wondered over the strange fact that, of the many writers whom I have read, Newman has influenced me the most. I say it is strange, because Newman had no expertise. He advanced no philosophy in a systematic sense. As George Lindbeck observed, Newman never wrote a book of proper theology. (I replied, “Neither have you, George.” He responded with a satisfied smile.)
Nearly everything Newman produced was written to address the problems and difficulties he faced. Tract 90 and its Tridentine reading of the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles was an effort to ease his religious conscience. An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine addresses the problems he needed to solve before entering the Catholic Church. His Apologia responds to a public attack on his character. His University Sermons and Grammar of Assent respond to crises of intellectual conscience that his friends, and perhaps he, too, felt.
Newman was in this respect a modern thinker whose greatest work addresses particular historical challenges—which is why he is often held up by liberal Catholics as a forerunner of the Second Vatican Council, with its much championed “openness” to the contemporary world. But these Catholics misjudge him. Newman remains ahead of them. He was never bewitched by vain imaginings of a reconciliation of the liberal, man-centered spirit of modernity with the Christian religion. Unlike the liberals of his day and ours, Newman recognized the unavoidable and life-giving role of authority. Our souls are not roused by opinions. Meaning is a weak word. Truth, by contrast, is a word with authority. It hits us hard. Awakened, we must decide: Will I assent or not? Dogmatism is thus the engine of personal responsibility. The sharp slap of a truth asserted forces us to stand on our feet as individuals who take responsibility for our beliefs. Liberalism in religion relaxes the demands of dogma—and in so doing lowers the stakes of personal responsibility. Is it then surprising how dull and conformist our age has become?
St. John Henry Newman, pray for First Things, its editors, writers, and readers. Pray that we will be true to the dogmatic principle. And pray that we have the courage to assume responsibility for what we believe is true.
Church Strife Under Pope Francis
A cabal of rich Catholic donors in the United States seeks to undermine Pope Francis, even to depose him. So argues Nicolas Senèze in Comment l’Amérique veut changer de pape. As is often the case with good propaganda, this portrait contains half-truths rather than outright lies. It is true that lepuissance de l’argent, “the power of money,” is contributing to the disintegration of the uneasy peace and unity that prevailed under John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Senèze is wrong, however, to imagine that American money operates unopposed. The German Church, unmentioned by Senèze, also plays a central role, one that needs to be spelled out if we are to understand church politics today.
The Catholic Church is the body of Christ, a supernatural community. But she is also an institution very much part of the world, which means her affairs are influenced by money, patronage, and power. We know, for example, that toward the end of the pontificate of John Paul II, a group primarily of Northern European cardinals, the St. Gallen Group, met to strategize about how to elect someone to reverse the Polish pope’s agenda. They wanted a pope who held their own view that Vatican II had inaugurated a liberalizing new spring for the Church—and that this new spring had been suppressed for three decades by John Paul II and his ally, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The St. Gallen cardinals settled on Jorge Bergoglio as their candidate. Support for Ratzinger was too strong in 2005. In the most recent election, however, Bergoglio won.
Papal elections are extremely complex, but there’s no doubt that the St. Gallen Group had influence. Since the election of Pope Francis, the group’s liberalizing agenda has gained the upper hand. The German Church has been emboldened in its attempts to align Catholicism with the secular consensus. It looks as though the German Church will accept the legitimacy of divorce. Odds are strong that it will accommodate itself to homosexuality as well, and perhaps endorse a relaxation of the discipline of clerical celibacy. On abortion and euthanasia there is also a spirit of compromise.
In all likelihood, Pope Francis and his team in Rome smile on these German trends. Perhaps they think these developments will lead to greater pastoral engagement. At the very least, this pontificate wants to sideline the two-generations-long battle against the sexual revolution, one in which the Church has suffered many setbacks. This, they imagine, will allow church leaders to pivot to more pressing issues, such as fighting climate change, welcoming migrants, and guiding globalization. Conveniently, these priorities allow the Church to align itself with establishment opinion in Europe rather than oppose it.
Worldly pressures reinforce the pivot toward cooperation. The Western European Catholic Church is deeply intertwined with establishment power. This is especially true in Germany. After 1945, the Church anchored the Christian Democratic reconstruction of the political and moral culture of that country. In view of this history, the desire to bring the Church into conformity with elite priorities is extremely powerful among German clergy and bishops of an older generation.
There are financial factors as well. The German Church is financed by a substantial tax collected by the government, the Kirchensteuer. Because the money comes from the government, Baby Boomer senior clergy and bishops in Germany are entirely free to ignore younger clergy and the opinions of lay faithful. The proposed “synodal process” that will liberalize German Catholicism has a lay component, the Central Committee of German Catholics. But this group is dominated by fonctionnaires in the church bureaucracy and heads of Catholic international aid agencies. In short, the German bishops and the career lay administrators who work alongside them control the Church without opposition. The institutional and financial structure of German Catholicism is such that it could collapse as a spiritual enterprise, with church attendance among nominal Catholics dwindling to 1 or 2 percent, while remaining a gigantic bureaucratic operation flush with money. Those who sit atop the institutional Church do not need donations; they don’t even need parishioners.
The flow of money in Germany also bankrolls a great deal of the global Church. The cardinals of the St. Gallen Group did not “buy” the papal election. They did, however, enjoy extensive connections based on their roles as benefactors. The Church’s wealth, especially that of the German Church, provided the cardinals from this region with unique influence. It put them atop various networks of patronage that span the Catholic world.
By no means does German Catholicism dominate the global Church and dictate terms to Pope Francis. Catholicism is more diffuse and loosely organized than outside observers realize, making it impossible fully to control. (The ability of the Society of Jesus to function for decades in open opposition to John Paul II and Benedict XVI is a case study.) In any event, Pope Francis is a political operator with a long history of evading oversight. And, of course, the United States is the other financial center of the Catholic Church, and its priorities differ from German ones.
The American Church has deep pockets and global reach. By some estimates, American sources provide one-third of the Vatican’s financial resources. But the dynamics of American Catholicism differ from those in Germany. Unlike in Germany, money in the United States does not flow directly to the hierarchy by way of state-collected tax revenue. Instead, funds come from private sources. This profound structural difference is becoming more evident—and more consequential.
A hundred years ago, the Church’s coffers were filled with countless dimes and quarters given by recent immigrants at Sunday Mass. This widespread support meant that priests and bishops were the undisputed financial barons. But things have changed. Now, wealthy Catholics who give large donations are more important than the weekly collections. The Papal Foundation, with its club of one-million-dollar donors, offers an example of this shift, but by no means the only one.
Until recently, wealthy American Catholics largely accepted the guidance of bishops and cardinals. The Papal Foundation ran smoothly. The pope, donors, and American ecclesiastical eminences were of one mind in making donations to the global Church. The same could be said for Catholic philanthropy more widely. Cardinals and bishops proposed targets for Catholic donors, who largely complied. The ability of church eminences to direct donors explains why Theodore McCarrick was able to exercise power and influence in Rome. He could raise large sums of money for causes favored by those who would advance him up the ladder of promotion—and then protect him from the consequences of his disordered life.
Under these circumstances, the American Church was functionally similar to the German Church. Though nominally more vulnerable to lay opinion, especially wealthy lay opinion, the American hierarchy had American wealth at its disposal. Bishops and their chanceries may not have written the checks, but they directed them.
Over the last two years, bishops have lost their spiritual authority over wealthy American Catholics. Outrage over the McCarrick cover-up broke down the cozy relations between rich Catholic donors and the hierarchy. Even if one discounts some of the charges, the open letter by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò rings true. In the present climate, it’s hard not to conclude that it would be unwise, even irresponsible, simply to trust church authorities when making donations. Catholic wealth is no longer easily influenced by bishops and cardinals.
Given this breakdown of the old system of private wealth guided by clerical authority, I have a degree of sympathy for those among Pope Francis’s entourage who hysterically denounce the “conservative American conspiracy.” In the United States, the bond between money and ecclesiastical power is breaking. This destabilizes the old order, much to the chagrin of the new regime in Rome, which had hoped to use le puissance de l’argent for its own purposes.
The emergence of “angry money” in the American Church is a manifestation of the breakdown. The financing behind the Red Hat Report is a good example. Frustrated by what they regard as a betrayal, some wealthy conservative Catholics are casting about for initiatives and movements that will operate independently of the American hierarchy, which they regard as discredited by the McCarrick cover-up and compromised by dependence upon Rome for personal advancement.
Furthermore, in the United States, opposition to Pope Francis is on the rise. One can debate the nature of Francis’s “true” ambitions for the Church. But rightly or wrongly, most American Catholics see him exactly as did the St. Gallen Group. He is the man who will roll back the oppositional stances of John Paul II and accommodate the Church to the secular, postmodern West. Some liberal American Catholics applaud this agenda. But unlike in Germany, many prominent Catholics in America resist it, often vigorously.
Open opposition to Pope Francis reflects the history and character of American Catholicism. The immigrant roots of the American Church make it less establishment-oriented. The political power of conservative evangelicals gives cover to Catholic intransigence on moral issues. Continental European societies approach moral controversies with a less rights-oriented and more consensus-driven manner. America has an adversarial political culture with an all-or-nothing emphasis on rights, reinforcing the fighting spirit in American Catholicism that goes back to Dagger John Hughes, the first archbishop of New York. All of this makes the American Church more counter-revolutionary, or at least more open to such views.
Pope Francis has renounced control over the appointment of bishops in China. He has not done so in the United States, where papal control remains absolute. But the power of appointment goes only so far. The networks of patronage by which Rome controls ecclesiastical policy and opinion are being weakened by the increasing reluctance of American donors to reinforce Rome by automatically funding the projects and priorities of Francis’s appointees. This subtle but significant breakdown in the close relation of financial and ecclesiastical power is sure to disrupt the American Church and change its relation to Rome.
Given the importance of the American Church as a financial center for the global Church, it is not surprising that Francis and his team see conspiracy. Of course, the spirit of rebellion is not strictly an American phenomenon. The global Church is by no means universally enthusiastic about Francis. Writing in the New York Times, Mattia Ferraresi outlines the split between the establishment supporting hierarchy in Italy and Matteo Salvini’s church-going supporters. In Europe more broadly, there is an ecclesial populism that parallels the upsurge in political populism. I was in France at the end of August and met some ardent young Catholic activists. They want to save marriage, save France, and save the Church. In this fight, they regard their bishops as useless, which is not surprising, given that the current episcopacy in France is for the most part eager to remain anonymous. The same is true in England and Ireland. For that matter, it is true in the United States. The invisibility of our hierarchy is redoubled by the fact that Francis frequently elevates weak and mediocre men to top positions—a classic Jesuit strategy for controlling institutions from afar.
The real story is not “American conservatives vs. the pope.” That’s useful propaganda for Pope Francis, who enjoys demonizing his opponents. But there is an element of truth in his frustration with resistance to his leadership. There is little doubt that his opponents will gain strength from American support, just as the modernist-oriented fans of his pontificate gain strength from German support.
Over the last two generations, a system of power emerged within Catholicism. It put Rome as the administrative center of the global Church, with the financial centers in Germany and America. The forceful leadership of John Paul II and the intellectual gravitas of Benedict XVI ensured the superordinate prestige of Rome, which in turn masked the tensions between the two financial centers. Under Pope Francis, the tensions are exploding. The Argentine pope has urged us to “make a mess.” He’s getting what he asked for.
On September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. France and Great Britain had pledged to defend Poland, and they soon declared war on Germany. Two weeks later, the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland in accord with a secret German-Soviet pact. Just two decades after the devastating loss of millions of men in the trenches along the Western Front, World War II had begun.
This war was to be the pivotal event of the twentieth century. In truth, the trauma of the war still defines the moral and political imagination of the West, well into the twenty-first century. Consider the currency of “fascist” as a fright-word. Although the paramilitary and terrorist organizations of the postwar era were largely creatures of the radical left (the Red Brigade in Italy, the Baader–Meinhof group in Germany, Sinn Féin in Ireland), we are constantly presented with images of Germany in the 1930s. We are told to fear the return of Hitler rather than of Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot.
Responses to recent populist rebellions demonstrate the ongoing salience of 1939. After Trump’s election, the media were hysterical. Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian who specializes in the history of modern Eastern Europe, raced to publish a short propaganda tract, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. It reads current events in the United States and Europe through the lens of Nazism. Although the analogies are wildly implausible, the book sold widely. A specter is haunting America—the specter of fascism.
In this issue, Andreas Lombard (“The Vanity of Guilt”) outlines the ways in which the crimes of Nazism remain contemporary in German political and cultural debates. Michel Gurfinkiel’s response (“Auschwitz Rightly Remembered”) does not dispute that Holocaust remembrance can be cynically misused by today’s politicians. It is a handy bludgeon with which to beat dissidents on the right. But he resists the impulse to put the memory of the Holocaust behind us. When it comes to Auschwitz, the lines of William Faulkner ring darkly true: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The struggles of the Cold War have largely receded from view. Those that culminated in World War II remain vivid and present.
In view of the contemporary currency of anti-fascism and the tremendous burden of memory of those years, I was disappointed to see that the eightieth anniversary of the outbreak of World War II went largely unnoticed. We need a more accurate historical understanding of that war and its aftermath.
As Americans, we often think of it as the “good war.” We saved the West! And in doing so, we produced “the greatest generation.” This misjudges historical reality. In truth, World War II knocked the stuffing out of the West. It was entirely fitting that countless millions celebrated the Allied victory. At the time, however, Richard Weaver recognized the profound cost to our civilization. He wrote to a friend after Japan’s surrender, “Is anything saved? We cannot be sure. True, there are a few buildings left standing around, but what kind of animal is going to inhabit them?” Hiroshima and Auschwitz: John Rawls said these horrors stripped him of his Christian faith. For a wrenching account of the evil that threatened to submerge even the victors, read the opening pages of
J. Glenn Gray’s classic, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle. Albert Camus summed up the implications of those years with a rueful twist on Nazi imagery: “Disaster is today our common Fatherland.”
I have written a book about the long shadow cast by World War II, Return of the Strong Gods: Nationalism, Populism, and the Future of the West. It will be out in mid-October. I show how we continue to define ourselves culturally, even spiritually, as anti-totalitarian, anti-fascist, and anti-nationalist. These anti-imperatives unite the postwar left and right. They are meant to build dikes against the return of the horrors that destroyed so many lives and tormented the souls of those who survived. In their time, I argue, these anti-imperatives were fitting. The strong gods very nearly destroyed the West. But in 2019 the anti-imperatives are decadent and counter-productive.
Timothy Snyder’s fantasies notwithstanding, we are not living in 1939. Instead of being members of societies consolidated in nationalist fervor, we tread water in a liquid world, buoyed only by promises of a borderless, multicultural future. We are told that even the borders that distinguish men from women are fluid. Our time begs for a politics of loyalty and solidarity, not for the politics of openness that was emphasized after 1945. Put simply, we need a home. And for that, I argue, we will require the return of the strong gods. Let us seek those who come from above and sustain our best traditions. These are not pagan images, but the shared loves and loyalties that are perfected, not abolished, by a transcendent faith. Only by embracing these things can we forestall the return of the dark gods who rise up from below.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ The facts on the ground offer no support to the hysteria about fascism so common in the chattering class. Throughout the West, populist voters are satisfied to express their dissatisfaction at the polls rather than in the streets. France, where marches and demonstrations are de rigueur, has been the exception, and the gilets jaunes followed national tradition. Elsewhere, insofar as there have been marches and protests, they have concerned climate change and other causes supported in faculty lounges. The relative calm among voters is astounding, given the dramatic and far-reaching economic, technological, demographic, and cultural changes that have transformed society over the last generation. Instead of denouncing as racist or fascist the voters who deviate from the narrow script of the late-model liberal economic and cultural consensus, our leaders should be grateful for their moderation and their loyalty to democratic norms.
♦ One far-reaching societal change is the unprecedented number of people without children. The leaders of many European countries are childless. Not since Oxford and Cambridge required celibacy of their dons has the university culture of the West been so dominated by childless professors. The same is true for the professions. In 1965, the ideal IBM employee was a married man with children. He was thought to be reliable and hungry for advancement. Today, the ideal Google employee is a single person without children, someone who is “flexible” and “creative.” The growing percentage of childless adults, especially at the higher reaches of society, is sure to have profound cultural and political consequences.
♦ I regret the Israeli decision in August to deny entry to Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. Israel has a right to protect itself from ideological attacks. An Internet personality in Russia who makes a name for himself by claiming that the United States is an illegitimate regime because it is based on genocidal crime does not have a “right” to come to our country to denounce it. That holds true for Israel and any other nation. But Omar and Tlaib are not marginal people. They are duly elected public officials of Israel’s most important ally. If liberals pressured a Democratic administration to deny entry to Viktor Orbán or Alternative für Deutschland members of the German Bundestag on the grounds that they pose threats to “liberal norms,” I’d think it regrettable. Closing a country’s borders in this way denies reality—the existence of dissenting voices among our allies. This, in turn, makes our political leaders less informed and more insular.
I hold the same view of university speakers. Internet personalities don’t have a “right” to speak at universities. But it shocks me when administrators at Middlebury bow to pressure and “disinvite” professors (Ryszard Legutko) and allow the harassment of established researchers (Charles Murray). They are members of the Republic of Letters. Excluding them denies reality—the existence of non-progressive voices among those committed to the life of the mind. When the university closes its borders in this way, academic culture becomes less informed and more insular.
♦ Fr. Donald Kloster organized a survey that compares the attitudes of Catholics who attend the traditional Latin Mass with those who attend the Novus Ordo Mass instituted after the Second Vatican Council. The results show that Latin Mass attendees hold much more rigorous positions on moral issues such as contraception, abortion, and gay marriage. Latin Mass–goers have larger families, attend more faithfully, and donate more to the Church. Audra Dugandzic, a Notre Dame graduate student in sociology, raised some questions about the validity of the survey on our website (“Orthodoxy and the Latin Mass”), not the least of which concerns the interpretation of correlation as causation. Based on my experience, the survey results ring true. The strong correlation indicates something real. After Vatican II, those responsible for implementing the changes in liturgy often argued that the Church needed a mode of worship more accessible to modern people, more in touch with present realities, more open to the world. The sexual revolution is very much a present reality. Therefore, if someone has misgivings about that revolution, he may be attracted to the old Mass, which is, as the reformers rightly noted, alien to contemporary sensibilities and “out of touch.” It’s not that the Latin Mass causes people to be tradition-minded when it comes to moral issues. More likely the old Rite tends to attract those who are already leaning in that direction, and once they fall under its influence, the “out-of-touch” liturgy reinforces “out-of-touch” moral commitments.
♦ The survey data presented by Fr. Kloster show that 2 percent of Latin Mass attendees approve of contraception, 1 percent approve of abortion, and 2 percent approve of gay marriage. Among Novus Ordo attendees, 89 percent approve of contraception, 51 percent approve of abortion, and 67 percent approve of gay marriage. Again, as Dugandzic points out, these data need scrutiny. I’m sure that if we narrowed down the Novus Ordo attendees to those who go every Sunday, the moral views would fall more in line with the Church’s teaching. Nevertheless, the data indicate polarization within the Catholic Church, which is not surprising, given the larger trends at work in society.
Since Vatican II, American Catholicism has been dominated by a muddy middle ground. For decades the mainstream has maintained official teaching but has not policed boundaries, an approach epitomized by the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on contraception. The middle ground has become unstable. Catholics, like everybody else, are being forced to pledge allegiance to the latest dictates of political correctness—the twenty-first-century version of the ancient Roman requirement that all citizens worship the civic gods. Nobody is being killed for his faith in the United States (as people are in other places in the world). But for those who are less than enthusiastic about gay marriage, the threats of professional assassination are quite real. In these circumstances, the post–Vatican II approach of being “open to the world” while temporizing about the Church’s moral judgments becomes unworkable. Priests and bishops either have the backs of lay Catholics who buck the progressive consensus or they don’t.
♦ The current pontificate is not “progressive,” at least not in an ecclesiastical sense. This papacy is “conservative.” Pope Francis will go down in history as the pope who worked overtime to sustain the ambiguities and compromises of post–Vatican II Catholicism. One key ambiguity: the word “pastoral.” It’s the softening adjective John XXIII insisted upon for the ecumenical council he called, and it serves as the plenary rationale for any action this pontificate considers necessary in order to adjust the Church’s teaching to the perceived needs of the world. Retro 1970s.
♦ A transgender activist in Canada filed a lawsuit against beauticians who refused to give him a Brazilian wax. They refused because they found his male genitalia discomfiting to deal with. This same fellow filed a request with the city of Langley, British Columbia, for permission to hold a swimming event for children, “All-Bodies Swim,” with the stipulation that girls could go topless and parents could not attend. (Their exclusion was meant to ensure that the event would be “safe and inclusive.”) It’s a cowardly society that won’t stand up to bullies and predators.
♦ The English-born Irish Dominican Herbert McCabe was known for his independence of mind. He demonstrates it in this passage, written in the aftermath of Vatican II:
There are satisfying experiences that are immediately satisfying like drinking good Irish whiskey but there are other satisfactions that occur only over long periods of time, like having a decently-furnished room. A well-furnished room is not breathtakingly beautiful (like the Irish whiskey) but it is very satisfying to live with, and if you get rid of it simply because it doesn’t give you an immediate kick, you will notice the lack of it maybe only a long time later. So I have to be careful about saying I do not usually find praying a deeply satisfying experience. It is true I hardly ever get a kick out of it, it almost never takes my breath away, but if you are deprived of, say, a decent liturgy for a fairly long period of time you discover an important gap in your emotional life. I might as well say at this point that I think there is a mistaken tendency, more especially in the United States but to some extent [in England], to design the liturgy for too immediate a satisfaction. I have been with the “underground” groups in the American Church who do not really feel they have celebrated a Eucharist unless they get some kind of immediate experience of personal warmth and enhanced sensitivity. I think the liturgies designed by these people are very frequently in bad taste. I agree with those critics who find the Missa Normativa a little dull, except that I do not think it is altogether a criticism. A room furnished in good taste is a little dull compared to one covered with psychedelic posters saying “Love is Love” and “Mary, the ripest tomato of them all.”
Taken from McCabe’s wide-ranging collection of essays, talks, and sermons, God Matters.
♦ McCabe continues, “But I must not let myself be carried away by passionate conservatism.” Well, perhaps not carried away, but by all means carried along.
♦ A damning fact about the Catholic Church: During the last fifty years, it has been far more damaging to a priest’s career for him to say the Mass in Latin than to groom seminarians as sexual partners.
♦ Carl Trueman is not one to waste time monitoring the antics of liberal Protestantism. But this came to his notice: “A recent tweet from Union Theological Seminary in New York City indicates that the institution, which once boasted luminaries of the intellectual stature of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, is now encouraging an innovative penitential practice: confessing sins to plants.” The tweet read: “Today in chapel we confessed to plants. Together, we held our grief, joy, regret, hope, guilt and sorrow in prayer; offering them to the beings who sustain us but whose gift we too often fail to honor. What do you confess to the plants in your life?” Trueman observes, “Liberal theology may well be rooted in highly sophisticated theories and articulated by extremely intelligent people, but it tends to result in liturgical practices that are at best banal and at worst childish.”
♦ The U.S. Department of Education issued a letter requiring the Duke University and University of North Carolina joint program in Middle Eastern Studies to make curricular changes. The program receives special federal funding under Title VI of the Higher Education Act of 1965, a provision meant to expand offerings in foreign languages and international studies. The purpose was to educate specialists in non-European cultures who could staff the State Department and other government and non-government agencies that play roles in advancing America’s international interests. The department’s letter questioned whether a conference on “love and desire in Modern Iran” and a course focusing on “unconscious bias” and advocacy for LGBT youth in schools met the criteria of Title VI. Overall, the department judged the program to have “a startling lack of focus on geography, geopolitical issues, history, and language.”
Anyone with a passing knowledge of higher education can recognize the phenomenon. Programs in the humanities and social sciences have been taken over by faculty who teach political advocacy. It seems the Duke-UNC Middle Eastern Studies program has followed this pattern. Some howl “academic freedom.” But this is a red herring. Of course, Duke and UNC are free to hire as many one-sided ideologues as they wish. But there’s nothing in the Constitution that requires the American taxpayer to subsidize them.
♦ John Waters diagnosing the distempers of our time: “A man without limits is as incapable of satisfaction as a man without hope.” I would add that a man without limits is also incapable of love, for love limits. And a loveless man is incapable of happiness.
♦ If Waters is correct, and I think he is, then a culture of permission promises happiness but delivers dissatisfaction. In such a culture—our culture—the greatest gift we can give our fellow man is the word that limits. That word is “No!”
♦ A young Joseph Ratzinger commenting on the early Christian view of temporal authority: “It was not difficult for [early Christians] to see that, although it was transitory, the world order that they knew nonetheless possessed a relative goodness and hence deserved respect within its own framework, and that it was only to be rejected when it stepped outside this framework and absolutized itself.” The imposition of limits is implicit in Jesus’s words: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”
♦ The Reverend Ally Perry would like to start a ROFTERS group in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.